I was sad to read the news yesterday that Ask.com was halting its quixotic battle against Google and positioning itself as an Internet answers service, primarily for women in the middle and southern U.S. Talk about a dramatic retreat.
Then I started thinking about those southern and midwestern women, and wondering if their needs are all that different from everyone else’s. Don’t they Google too? And, conversely, if there’s a more efficient way than a standard search engine to track down info for them, why shouldn’t it work for the rest of us? Way back before the dot.com collapse, Ask’s forebear, AskJeeves, offered simplifed answer service. The press releases are still online. They were blown away by Google. It’s almost fatuous to suggest that it will happen again. But there you are.
In the last decade, we've all learned to think like a search engine. We know which words define the sets we're looking for, and how we can combine those sets to narrow down the hunt. In a sense, we do Google's work for it. So if we're told that we can ask the machine a question in normal English, something like, "How do you strike through words when you're writing a blog on MovableType?" it sounds so old-fashioned as to be quaint. (By the way, if anyone can answer that question for me, I'm having trouble finding it on Google...) My point is that perhaps those Midwestern and Southern women would have been eager for Ask's answer service in the '90s. But I wonder if they will be now. (By the way, I should add that when I remember to use it, I find Ask to be an excellent search engine. There's good technology there.)